Ogdensburg, fire officials spar over first responder status

A carved statue of a kneeling firefighter clutching an American flag is seen in front of the Ogdensburg Fire Department building on Ford Street. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

OGDENSBURG — Following the fire union’s swift rejection of the city’s initial contract offer last week, the city has extended a second and final offer to the union.

In an email to media Sunday morning, City Manager Stephen P. Jellie confirmed the city has “initiated” a second offer to the Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799 — the latest development in the ongoing public battle between the city and its fire union over minimum staffing.

“This will be the final offer presented to IAFF Local 1799 if we are not able to conduct productive negotiations that result in a fair deal for the city,” Mr. Jellie wrote.

He said that, like the first contract offer, the contents of the second offer will remain confidential “until the parties accept or reject the offer entirely.”

When contacted Sunday about the new contract offer, Mr. Bouchard said he thinks it’s “inappropriate and improper to negotiate through the media, as the city manager continues to do.”

The city and fire union have been at odds for more than two months after the city introduced, then passed, its 2021 budget, which included the elimination of seven firefighter positions. Last week, five layoff notices were issued as one fire captain chose to accept the city’s $25,000 retirement incentive, and a sixth firefighter is out on leave for an unspecified injury. The layoffs took effect Jan. 1.

On Dec. 18, the union filed suit in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County against the city in order to temporarily halt city officials from reducing the size of the fire department staff.

When the 2021 budget was passed by City Council on Dec. 9, the city had 27 firefighters, but factoring in the seven job cuts, 20 firefighters were to remain, dipping below the 24-person minimum required by the city and union’s minimum staffing agreement.

Judge Mary M. Farley on Dec. 28, denied the union’s request for a temporary restraining order preventing layoffs while the court case is pending, allowing the city to move forward with the layoffs.

For the last six months, Mr. Jellie said, “city management attempted on multiple occasions to work collectively” with Mr. Bouchard and the fire union’s secretary, Ronald Bouchard, on a plan to reduce the overall size of the fire department “and reign in the significantly high cost of employing personnel.”

It costs the city about $131,968 per firefighter annually, including salary and benefits, and the average annual salary of a city firefighter is $70,767.

Mr. Jellie on Sunday repeated his claim that it’s “a price far too high for residents and taxpayers to afford in these challenging times.”

The current contract with the fire union was “hastily” agreed to in November 2019 by a majority City Council, Mr. Jellie has said.

“The previous city council and city manager knew in detail the facts of the city’s fiscal distress, yet still they deliberately took action in the final days of their administration to tie the hands of the incoming city council by signing an unaffordable and unsustainable contract with the IAFF Local 1799,” Mr. Jellie’s Sunday email to media reads. “The facts illustrate that these former officials masterminded the conflict that has ensued since their departure and provided such a false sense of security to firefighter personnel and their families. Since taking office the 2020 City Council has taken decisive action to address the city’s serious financial distress, including stabilizing employment for the city’s dedicated workforce, in order to ensure the survival of city and ultimately begin the revival of the city.

“We sincerely hope President Bouchard and Secretary Ronald Bouchard will join us in this effort and accept the very generous offer presented today (Sunday) that, along with the retirement incentive opportunity may well return all laid off firefighter personnel to work,” Mr. Jellie added.

In response to Mr. Jellie’s new contract offer, Jason Bouchard said in a statement to media Sunday that, “These men haven’t been given a single indication of how they will be made whole by the city. If voting to violate our contract and laying off employees for the first time in department history was not enough. The city has given zero information or guidance to the men whose lives they have altered immediately and permanently.”

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(1) comment

DJT

Thank you mayor and city manager for working in the local swamp to help the local homeowners here with some tax relief. Shame on you fire department on your constant greed toward your fellow citizens.

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